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The Liminal Space of Intentional Not-Knowing

“I’ll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something, deep inside, allowing us to grow. Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken!”

— The character of Duke Leto Atredies, in David Lynch’s movie interpretation of Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune.

The past month has been a time of profound change for me. That change has touched many areas of who I am, my professional identity… my personal identity. That change has affected the planning my wife and I have done about what the next few years of our lives would look like. It has affected how others have planned their lives in relation to ours, and how others seat me in their own identities. For some, who I am has shifted… for others, who I am in their personal cosmos has been reinforced.

As soon as I took off my robe and stole after my ordination, my sister walked up and punched me in the shoulder, just as she has done for decades. No matter what, she was stating that my place in her personal cosmos would always be the older brother that she would give a bruised upper arm to, just like when I was 12 and she 9. It is good to know, in a time of change and transition, that some things never change.

For years, my practice when I came to a time of such radical transition and change was formed, I believe, by my past in a conservative religious tradition. It was reinforced by an old military dictum that I encountered when I was an Army Sergeant… that often a bad plan is better than no plan at all. My practice when faced with a time when my plans were not going to happen the way I expected was to simply and immediately find a new plan. My practice when faced with a shift in my internal or external identity was to quickly build a new identity, and then defend it.

In this most recent experience, both my plans for the future and my own personal identity were thrown into question, by the decision of the U.S. Army for staffing reasons to offer to make me a full Army Chaplain, but in the Reserves or the National Guard, not on active duty. This came amidst other more planned transitions in my personal and professional identity… my graduation from seminary, my ordination into the UU ministry. I thought that my accessioning as an Active Duty Army Chaplain would be a seamless part of this transition in identity, but that turned out not to be the case. The seamless part, at any rate.

Now, in the past, faced with such a shift in my identity, my expectations, and my future plans, I would have just found another plan, no matter how bad it might be, and stuck with it. A bad or less considered plan is better than no plan at all, right? In truth, I began to do this… by sending an initial email to the Army that stated my intent was not to accept the commission at all, and commit myself to civilian ministry.

What shifted me away from adopting a new plan and path immediately was the idea of living in a “liminal space”. Before I encountered this term “liminal” I had been defining it for myself as “creative not-knowing”. In theological work, creative not-knowing is the commitment to doubt that allows one to begin thinking creatively about ideas such as the nature of God, of reality, and of our place in it. What struck me was that the idea of creative not-knowing I was learning to apply to theological exploration could also be applied to this space in my life, if I was willing to inhabit a space of liminality for a time.

Wikipedia defines liminality as “a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes… The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.”

That is a pretty good description of the spiritual and mental space I have been inhabiting this last month, and still remain in to some extent. I have, very intentionally, chosen to stay in this place of change, and allow time for those many “somethings” to be jarred, deep inside, allowing for me to grow. I have explored many possibilities, and continue to explore several. I have invited others into that exploration. It has been amazing to witness how my friends and colleagues have reacted to me inhabiting some intentional liminal space… I think I’m learning as much about others as I am about myself.

Not that liminal space is a comfortable place for me to be… far from it. It has been exhausting, at times excruciating, and even a bit enveloping. An intentional practice of doubt is one thing when working with ultimate questions, values, and esoterical concepts… it is quite another when it involves how you are going to put food on the table in the coming year. And yet, the past month has been one of the most spiritually and personally creative times in my life, and it has been professionally transformative. I’m not going to speak about what all that entails right now, as my liminal space is still on-going… but I will say that I have been able to imagine and dream, hope and pray, craft and cultivate… and what may come out the other end of this liminal space has the potential to be so much more than if I had just immediately found a new plan and invested my identity and self into it.

It has also given me a new perspective upon this faith we call Unitarian Universalism … a new lens. Now, I don’t believe that any perspective or lens on our liberal faith movement contains all of who we are or is the key that unlocks a full understanding our shared faith… but this one is inspiring some new thoughts. Are we a faith that is located within liminality? Does our lack of certainty in belief, or in a plan for our future allow us to occupy a place of creativity that few other religious faiths touch? Could it be that how hard it has been (and how amazing) for me to stay in my personal liminal space shed light on why many people encounter Unitarian Universalism for a few years, but do not stay?

I do not know the answer to any of these questions… and that’s kinda the point to liminality, isn’t it? Not-knowing, I can ask the questions and experience the possibilities in a deeper way than if I could answer them. Perhaps we need a little liminality in order to be open to the sacred…

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David

5 Thoughts on “The Liminal Space of Intentional Not-Knowing

  1. I don’t put my faith in liminality. I use the UU faith to ask questions. I see other faiths as using the left brain to answer right brain questions. However I see our faith as making possible using the right brain to ask the questions and then instead of answering the question, learn instead to ask the questions such that your life (hopefully well lived) is the answer. This is for me different than previous religions. I am not living for the answer, waiting to get the invitation to come indoors because I am already the indoors I seek. I just have to find the question that brings out the fullest interaction with my inner self free from second guessing that creates our belief in the dark side.

    I can understand that you find yourself inbetween two sides if you argue in the terms of faith used by other religions and you’re in the Unitarian tradition.

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  4. Hi Rev David!
    I was today introduced to the concept of liminal space, and found your posting helpful and encouraging. I find myself in a period of ‘betwixt & between’ in my life journey and have found various writings about liminal space very helpful. I see your posting was in 2010 and would be keen to hear where you are at with your journey now?
    One phrase I found quite quite liberating is that liminal space can be “a place of pure possibility”!

  5. Hello Dale,

    Well, the time of liminality that occurred for me in 2010 lasted about two months. Through that time, there were many different ideas and opportunities that came forward. I received offers from two different churches to serve as their minister. I received an offer to become a hospice chaplain. I received an offer to continue my training as a chaplain with an eye of becoming a chaplain training supervisor. The Army looked for a way to send me on a deployment.

    So, the liminality of not knowing what was next became the liminality of discerning between many different options. In the end, my wife and I followed the call to serve a congregation in Midland, Michigan as their Interim minister… a ministry that went amazingly well and where I was able to reconnect with my call to parish ministry.

    It also allowed me to accept the offer to become a Reserve U.S. Army Chaplain. In Michigan, I served as a chaplain to a Civil Affairs unit.

    I completed my Interim ministry in Midland after one year, and for this last year I have served as the Assistant Minister at the UU Church of Ventura, California… and have loved the ministry. I also have been serving as a Combat Support Hospital Chaplain for an Army Reserve unit in Bell California (and I am writing you from attending a class at the Army Medical Center and School at Ft. Sam Houston, in San Antonio Texas).

    So, my time of liminality led to more options for my future than I could accept… it was hard, difficult, uncomfortable, and painful… and it changed my life.

    Thank you for asking…

    Yours in faith,

    Rev. David

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